The Evolving Journal Article: Moving Beyond the Traditional Format

Kharissia Pettus
Contractor, Origin Editorial

Take Home Points:

  • Scientific journal articles evolve based on technology and other societal influences. This post discusses three ways articles have evolved.
  • A visual abstract is a summary of an article in the form of a picture. See below for questions to consider before publishing these abstracts.
  • Supplementary material allows authors to share data and information while keeping journal articles concise, but researchers whose material is found in these sections may not get credit for their work.
  • Data articles describe data without stating conclusions about the data and allow researchers to get credit for the data they collect.

A scientific journal article is crucial to scientific research because it is a way to convey information, results, and conclusions to large audiences. Furthermore, articles are records — blocks —that can build on each other. Before the present iterations of the journal article, researchers wrote essays and letters to disseminate their findings. It was not until the 1880s that the recognizable journal article (a document that has an introduction, methods section, results, and discussion) appeared; by the 1970s, this format was the dominant one in scientific journals. The journal article has not remained static, however, due to societal factors such as technology, policy changes, and mandates. In response to these factors, the scientific community has re-conceptualized journal sections, created new ones, and even created new article types articles. Technology has enabled the enhancement of journal sections through media such as video, animations, sound files, and interactive figures and has allowed journals to exist solely online. This idea of media-enhancing journal content has resulted in a phenomenon called the visual abstract.


Visual Abstracts Show Readers What Articles Are About

A visual abstract is a graphic summary that presents the question a study is addressing, the key results, and conclusions. Visual abstracts are short and typically conveyed in one picture and are also called central illustrations,central figures, or graphical abstracts. Information and conclusions that are not in the accompanying article should not appear in the abstract. In addition, the abstract does not replace the actual article. Many medical journals have embraced visual abstracts such as Annals of Surgery and American Journal of Kidney Diseases.


Visual abstracts are ideal for social media. Image files can easily be uploaded to many of the social media platforms or used in presentations. Visual abstracts have been shown to increase the traffic to articles. Although visual abstracts can engage readers and draw them to journals, these abstracts can be prone to oversimplifications and misinterpretations of conclusions.


If a journal decides to publish visual abstracts, several key questions need to be answered: What are the guidelines and resources for creating abstracts so that visual abstracts will have the same style? Are authors responsible for creating visual abstracts or will the journal or publisher hire a third party to create them? Will the visual abstracts be reviewed with the accompanying articles? Will they be reviewed at all?


Supplementary Material Expands and Adds Value to Articles

While the ease of incorporating media has transformed article sections, the structure of a journal article has been transformed by online data repositories, the ability for journals to be online, and funding mandates for data being made available to the scientific community. Supplementary material sections have resulted and often co-exist with other sections of articles. Supplemental sections must be relevant to the articles they accompany and can consist of figures, tables, detailed materials and methods, data, or presentations. Supplementary material can be in various media formats such as audio, video, and animations.


Supplemental sections allow authors to share data and information with readers while keeping the other sections of their journal articles concise. These sections also reduce the number of pages for printed journals and are often not edited or set by a production team, which saves time and money. By making data available in the supplementary material section, authors can also meet research funding requirements. Studies suggest that articles with supplemental materials are downloaded and cited more often than articles that do not have these sections. By using supplementary material sections, authors can share data and other important material with their readers, providing ways to interact with them.


Supplementary material can be reviewed with articles; however, often authors and reviewers do not give proper attention to supplementary material. In addition, supplementary material sections can cloud the main points of an article or be in a format (such as a pdf instead of an Excel file) that do not allow readers to fully access data. More alarmingly, citations in supplementary material do not get tracked like citations in articles; researchers mentioned in supplementary material for their contributions may not get proper credit. So, supplementary material sections have a few drawbacks, and when one considers that articles in online journals could theoretically be any length and linked to repositories, should this material be sequestered into a separate section?


Data Articles and Data Journals Are on the Scene

Data articles and data journals address some of the issues that supplemental sections of data have. Data articles describe data sets and the collection, processing and technical validation, software, and file formats of the data. These peer-reviewed articles describe why data was collected but do not make in-depth analyses or draw conclusions based on the data. A data journal is a peer-reviewed publication, such as Scientific Data and Biodiversity Data Journal. Note that the data that articles describe usually reside in an archive or repository.


Researchers author data journal articles and so can get proper credit. In other words, by publishing in a data journal or a journal that accepts data articles, researchers are rewarded with appearing in a peer-reviewed journal and get the benefits of discoverability, quality control, and citation tracking. Data journals also align with funding mandates to make data publicly available, which further incentivizes authors to make data public.


Data articles are an answer to the question of whether articles must have all sections of the traditional scientific journal articles. Data articles highlight the importance of data, data collection, and novel ways to obtain new (and possibly ground-breaking) data. These publications fulfill important purposes of helping make data more readily available to the scientific community and helping researchers get credit for their data. 


What’s Next for the Journal Article

Journal articles have evolved based on the changing needs of the scientific community and technology. Two tenets have held: disseminating information and helping researchers receive credit for their efforts. Society continues to evolve, so there is no reason to expect the journal article not to continue also. Predicting exactly how the journal article will change is more challenging, especially when you consider researchers’ expectations and how diverse the scientific community is (the needs of researchers in sports medicine are different from the needs of physicists, for example). Do you have any ideas? Feel free to comment below.



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